Cronos is a small-scale reworking of the vampire mythos that also happens to be Guillermo Del Toro’s first feature film. Some debut feature’s arrive fully formed, so fresh and so daring they rise above their shortcomings. Cronos is not that kind of debut.
Del Toro is the rare director that I greatly admire, yet I only love one of his movies, The Devil’s Backbone. The Hellboy films can be fun and there’s always something to relish in his pictures, but as a whole, the films rarely reach the same plane as his imagination.
There are some nice moments in Cronos, but a lot of Del Toro’s well-earned goodwill is squandered on a second half that fails to truly explore the ideas from the opening.
Cronos opens with a prologue explaining how an alchemist invented a strange contraption that can prolong one’s life. 400 years later the golden scarab is discovered by an old antiques dealer, Jesus, and his protective granddaughter. Jesus accidentally triggers the device, it punctures and locks on to his hand. Once removed, it seems like nothing more than a bloody bee sting. Later he discovers he is overwhelmed by an unquenchable thirst and a longing for the device to sting him again. He gradually begins to appear younger, more virile, but finds he thirsts for something with a little more plasma.
The device itself is a wonderful effects coup. The guts are all clockwork gears and grotesque arthropod. You don’t need to get caught up in the logistics of the device, just the consequences. The best moment comes during a grand New Year’s ball where Jesus stalks a man with a bloody nose into the bathroom. Not really knowing why, or caring, the mild-mannered antiques dealer finds himself lapping up a small pool of blood off the bathroom floor. It’s quite unnerving and would seemingly portend to more sinister happenings for the rest of the picture.
Unfortunately, it is at that moment the film takes a turn toward the unimpressive. Rather than explore a vampire origin in which a sweet old man transforms into a bloodthirsty monster, the film becomes a lackluster fight for control of the mechanism. It so happens that a sickly millionaire and his nephew, played by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman have been seeking the ancient tool. The dying man, brandishing a sizable inheritance, has tasked his nephew to find the mysterious tool so that he might stave off death a little longer.
The movie really slows down at this point, less like character development and more like killing time ’til the final confrontation. There are some weak biblical allusions (his name is Jesus after all), and the make-up effects deteriorate down the home stretch. When we finally reach the “climax” it isn’t all that interesting or unpredictable. The presence of the granddaughter only exacerbates things; she doesn’t really add anything to the story and is much more of a distraction than anything else.
For a debut feature, Cronos is commendable. Some of Del Toro’s obvious and enduring passions are on display: make-up effects, insects, and fantasy grounded in reality. Del Toro would eventually explore vampires again, with more mixed results, in Blade 2. There are some original ideas here, I only wish he would have gone further, really taking his time showing the type of damage unnatural youth can have on a man’s life, soul, and humanity. Since he didn’t do this, what we’re left with is something to respect, but not feel passionately about.